By Joseph Naeem
In 2013, Pope Francis shocked the world by striking a remarkably conciliatory tone on LGBT individuals, when, in response to a journalist’s question about gay priests, he declared, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Socially liberal-minded spectators applauded these comments, seen as an example of the Pope’s “soft” PR approach. His words also simultaneously updated the Roman Catholic Church’s 21st century image while also promoting a culture of inclusion for traditionally maligned groups.
Such comments as these, along with similar gestures — such as when Francis met privately with longtime friend and openly gay man Yoyo Grossi during his recent U.S. trip — have been used to promote an image of Francis as an open-minded, and even progressive, pope. However, this “soft” image is misleading when contrasted with the hard reality of the Vatican State’s immense sway over social issues within the Italian political process.
Now, as a civil-union bill slowly courses its way through Italian Parliament, Italy’s dual, and sometimes conflicted, nature — as both host to the Vatican State and a modern democracy trying to keep up with the rest of the E.U.— is on full display.
The civil-union bill, named the ‘Cirinnà Bill’ after Sen. Monica Cirinnà and based on the German life-partnership model, would grant most of the basic rights and privileges enjoyed by married Italian heterosexual couples to LGBT couples. These include basic provisions for purposes of taxes, inheritance, and social welfare programs, but excludes numerous key rights such as stepchild adoption.
Yet that doesn’t stop the bill’s very existence from being touted as a political victory for center-left Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who promised in 2013 that civil unions bill would be passed to guarantee rights for LGBT couples that “would be the same as married heterosexual couples.” Renzi would end up repeating this call in 2014, and yet again in 2015, only to come up somewhat short if the current form of the legislation passes.
Sen. Cirinnà finally proposed a bill whose wording the Senate Judiciary Committee approved in March, promising that LGBT Italians would see their rights “written down in black and white.” While the bill passed the Italian Chamber of Deputies earlier this year, it remains stalled in the Italian Senate, where center-right parties have beleaguered the bill with over 4,000 amendments. One group alone, the New Centre-Right Party, lead by Renzi’s cabinet member Angelino Alfano, added 3,000 amendments to slow the passage of the bill, making his opposition to the bill one of his party’s signature issues.
The historical ancestor of these various political blocs in Italian politics, deeply adherent to Vatican theological positions, was Christian Democracy (DC). Founded in 1943, DC was a Roman Catholic, centrist, catch-all party that had right and left-leaning factions, but which followed the Roman Catholic teaching as defined by Two Papal encyclicals, Rerum novarum (1891) of Pope Leo XIII and Quadragesimo anon (1931) of Pope Pius XI. These documents emphasized competition in the economic realm, opposition to communism in international relations, and, depending on the subgroup of the party, adherence to traditional Catholic norms.
The party splintered in 1994 as a result of widespread corruption, but its centre-right leaning factions continued to affiliate strongly with the Catholic Church, now evident in their opposition to civil unions.
“The problem,” as Massimo Prearo, a Marie Curie Fellow at the Research Centre Politesse, “is the enslavement of a large part of MPs to the Roman Clergy.” MPs, who are themselves Catholic, feel obligated to their highly Catholic constituencies, and vote on positions in a way that reflect Catholic orthodoxy.
Their political efforts in these areas can not be justifiably described as overtly theocratic, at least at the expense of Italian democracy. Of course, the majority of Italians are still Catholic, and anti-gay sentiment is present in many sectors, visible through public demonstrations. On June 20, for example, a massive gathering of over 300,000 people assembled in San Giovanni Square in Rome for a ‘Pro-Family Day,’ protesting the Cirinnà Bill. Part of the protest focused also on the controversial teaching of the so-called ‘gender theory’ in Italian schools, where the biological sex is not considered identical with gender identity. The Vatican, needless to say, continues to define marriage in strictly heteronormative terms.
Surprisingly, however, such groups now represent the minority of Italian citizens. Numerous studies taken in June, following the Italian vote to legalize gay marriage, placed the level of support for civil unions in Italy at between 67 and 80 percent. While a majority of Italians still oppose gay adoption, this level of support for civil unions cannot be seen as anything but a drastic change in public perceptions in such a traditionally Catholic country.
The pressure to enact legislation is mounting from elsewhere in Europe as well. In a 2015 decision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that by denying legal protections to gay couples, Italy was in breach of Article 8, the provision that guarantees every person the right to “respect for his private and family life.”
Pope Francis is the figurehead of an institution that has traditionally held tremendous sway over political process in Italy. Yet he has managed, in his own small way, to shift attitudes and encourage acceptance of sexual minorities. This "soft" attitude change must now be met with hard policy legislation from Italian lawmakers.
As Steven White, professor of Modern Italian History at Mt. St. Mary’s College, summarized the challenge now before Italian MPs for World Policy Journal, “It’s not that they’re becoming less Catholic. It’s that they’re finding a way to be a good Catholic and also to be consonant with other values that have become more prominent in modern society.”
Joseph Naeem is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]